It was a dark and stormy afternoon, and a small group of learned scholars gathered to whisper amongst themselves the secrets of haunted castles, monstrous creatures, and dark forbidden crimes. The rain pelted against the large windows as the wind howled through the trees… the palm trees? San Diego, CA had found its own way to welcome the First Annual Studies in Gothic Fiction Conference to its usually-sunny shores.
Though I have only been studying the Gothic for a few short years now, I have had the privilege to attend several fantastic Gothic-focused conferences in the UK and Germany. For Gothic scholars in the United States, however, such conferences are travel-intensive and hugely expensive. Though conferences such as the PCA (Popular Culture Association) almost always include at least one panel on the Gothic, I struggle to remember a single recent conference devoted to the Gothic or Gothic topics that has taken place within the US. Until now, that is! This fact makes the very existence of The Studies in Gothic Fiction Conference, held March 16th and 17th and sponsored by National University, an incredible ray of hope for Gothic scholars in America. Though its numbers were small, the academics who attended the conference—ranging from first-year graduate students and high school teachers to members of the IGA (International Gothic Association)—seemed well aware of this fact and hugely appreciative to have such a rare opportunity. Every panel that I saw was well-attended and extremely active during the Q & A portion, and participants seemed to relish this chance to speak in a like-minded community about the complexities of texts that are frequently pushed to the sidelines of more canonically-based academic forums.
Overall, the content of the conference included a mixture of different time periods, from Romantic to contemporary, as well as media forms, such as film, music, and blogging in addition to the traditional print forms. Two full panels focused on the works of Anne Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, and I heard papers that examined the religious background of these authors and their works, their contributions to the “Male” and “Female” Gothic, and aspects of economics and femininity within their texts. The presence of Romantic-era Gothic was pervasive beyond these panels, however, as many papers on Victorian and Contemporary works referenced earlier works in newer contexts. By far, the most frequent term used in many of the papers I heard was “hybridity,” a concept that, despite the Gothic’s aversion to definition, speaks to its unwavering dedication to its origins. The keynote address, “A New Intensity of Feeling: Secretly Enjoying Ghosts, Banshees, and Derelict Lovers in Gothic Short Stories of British Literary Annuals,” was given by Katherine D. Harris. Part literary analysis, part archival discussion, part technology demonstration, she shared her research with hard-to-find annuals from the perspective of the digital humanities. Many papers throughout the weekend pursued similar contemporary takes on traditional works. Some offered an analysis of a contemporary text in juxtaposition with a parallel or divergent analysis of a traditional Romantic or Victorian text in order to explore the direction in which more recent literature is taking the Gothic and Gothic Studies. My own paper discussed certain aspects of Frankenstein in order to understand fragmentation in Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, and another paper on my panel did a fascinating study of the feminine, the community, and the mob in both The Monk and Shirley Jackson’s We have Always Lived in the Castle.
Though scholarship has, from time to time, frowned on overt and strained blending of literary periods, I believe that the Gothic lends itself particularly well to the benefits of such inter-period communication. Itself born out of a revival and reimagining of the Medieval (often to a highly anachronistic extent), the Gothic has always carried its own contemporary concerns to foreign times and places, transplanting the here and now to the there and then. Does this make strategies of Gothic studies themselves as Gothic as the works with which they engage? To a certain extent, possibly.
For further interest in the concerns of this conference, see the online peer-reviewed journal, Studies in Gothic Fiction. According to Franz Potter, editor of the journal and one of the conference coordinators, there will be a forthcoming special edition of the journal highlighting papers presented on that dark and stormy California weekend.